They both have a reputation for unpredictability. They both like to surround themselves with generals. They both enjoy tweaking China even though their countries are economically dependent on Beijing.
Coming into office, Donald Trump has a lot more in common with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un than he would care to admit. They’re too different in age and ethnic background to be doppelgangers. They’re more like soul brothers.
Like the North Korean leader, the president-elect is a wealthy insider who has zero experience in politics and a certain preference for the autocratic. Both men have a taste for the finer things in life and a weakness for big, flashy construction projects. They are also both quick to anger and big on revenge. It’s no surprise, then, that so many people around the world are as uncomfortable with Trump’s proximity to nuclear weapons as they are with Kim Jong Un’s.
During his election campaign, Donald Trump mentioned that he’d be willing to sit down and make a deal with the North Korean leader. This offhand offer led some progressive Koreans to favor Trump over Hillary Clinton, who promised more of the same Obama policy toward North Korea with perhaps a few more punishing sanctions thrown in for good effect.
After the election, some Korea watchers made a more elaborate case for Trump to negotiate with Pyongyang. Joel Wit and Richard Sokolsky argue that Obama’s policy of strategic patience yielded worse than nothing over eight years of sanctions and studied indifference. Trump, as an outsider, can quickly change the dynamic.
“It will take the kind of strong leadership and negotiating prowess that Trump boasted about incessantly during the presidential campaign—and an inclination, which he’s quite clearly demonstrated, to buck the criticism of the foreign-policy establishment,” they write in The Atlantic.
As a supporter of diplomatic engagement with North Korea, I would very much like to see the resumption of negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang. I don’t much care who takes credit in Washington for the initiative. After all, I was happy that the George W. Bush team reversed its hostile stance in favor of the Six Party Talks during his second term, even though I disagreed with virtually everything else about the conduct of U.S. foreign policy at the time.
But I don’t think that Donald Trump has any intention of negotiating a deal with North Korea. After all, he wouldn’t just be bucking the criticism of the foreign policy establishment. He’d be going against the inclinations of his own foreign policy team.
His nominee for national security advisor, Michael Flynn, believes that North Korea – along with China, Russia, Cuba, and Nicaragua – is aligned with radical Islam. The Bush administration’s inclusion of North Korea in an “axis of evil” with Iraq and Iran set back diplomatic efforts with Pyongyang for several years. Flynn’s expansion of this axis will not help matters either.
Mike Pompeo, Trump’s nominee to head up the CIA, has an even more hawkish view of North Korea. He put out a statement after North Korea’s January 2016 nuclear test that read in part:
North Korea presents a frightening vision of a future with President Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran. Despite the obvious failure of President Clinton’s 1994 nuclear deal with North Korea, the Obama administration sent Wendy Sherman, the same person who handled the failed North Korea deal, to negotiate with Iran and allowed her to use a similar template. As a consequence, the world could face not one, but two radical nuclear-armed regimes that terrorize other countries and abuse their own citizens.
KT McFarland, who is Trump’s pick for deputy national security advisor, also has recommended tightening sanctions against North Korea to shut down all financial transfers. Additionally, she suggested that the U.S. government push a program of “missile defense on steroids.”
Trump and his team have also trotted out the old standby: pressure China to pressure North Korea. This has been a go-to strategy for every administration going back at least to Bill Clinton. And it’s true that China has become increasingly frustrated with North Korea’s actions. But even if Beijing were willing to carry Washington’s water on this issue – and that’s a big if – it just doesn’t have the kind of leverage over Pyongyang that U.S. national security professionals imagine that it has.
As importantly, no one in Trump’s transition team has explained how it will play this China card when it is angering Beijing on a number of issues including trade, Taiwan, and missile defense.
As the Trump team continues to chart its path to the White House, there is much talk these days in Washington that North Korea will mark the new administration’s first challenge. In his conversation with Trump, President Obama reportedly singled out North Korea’s nuclear program as a priority. Perhaps Kim Jong Un will test the new president’s mettle with another missile or nuclear test. Perhaps it will somehow take advantage of the political turmoil in South Korea.
I would dearly love to see the United States abandon its failed policy of punish-and-ignore North Korea. I hope that negotiations are in the offing.
But when two hotheads like Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump square off, diplomacy will probably be the last thing on their minds.